TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Ashley Monroe, a country singer still in her '20s, has just released her third studio album "The Blade." She also cofounded the group the Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Monroe's new album "The Blade" is a collection of deceptively pretty songs that cohere as a strong, serious piece of work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BURIED YOUR LOVE ALIVE")
ASHLEY MONROE: (Singing) Woke up this morning in a cold, cold sweat, heart broke and beating out of my chest. I cried out your name against my will. A memory I can't kill. I buried your love alive. I buried your love alive. I buried your love alive. Deep inside me, there's a shallow grave that haunts me every day. I buried your love alive. Getting tired and I don't want to deal.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: When the news was announced recently that Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton were getting a divorce, some country fans doubtless felt a secret thrill of pleasure. They know that some of the best country music comes from heartache. So who knows what excellent music this pain might yield, especially from Lambert, much the better songwriter of the two. In a way, however, we already have a sense of how that kind of pain could be framed in this new album by a close friend of Lambert's, Ashley Monroe.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BLADE")
MONROE: (Singing) I let your love in, I have the scar. I felt the razor against my heart. I thought we were both in all the way. But you caught it by the handle, and I caught it by the blade. You said goodbye...
TUCKER: That's "The Blade," the title song of this album - the only one Monroe didn't have a hand in writing. But she certainly stakes her claim on its sharp emotions, and Miranda Lambert joins her on the chorus. Because Ashley Monroe sings in high, curling tones with the smoothest of phrasings, it's easy to hear past what she's saying, not just in the lyrics, but in the jagged, little edges attached like a razor-toothed zipper to so many of her songs. One of my favorite examples of this certainly is this one, "If The Devil Don't Want Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THE DEVIL DON'T WANT ME")
MONROE: (Singing) I'm out walking in dark alleys searching for shadows in the valleys. You were my heaven, you were my home. So what am I supposed to do when heaven is gone? If the devil don't want me, where the hell do I go? If I can't see the light in the neon glow.
TUCKER: If you listen to "The Blade" from start to finish, you notice a few things. One is that the album, coproduced by Vince Gill and Justin Niebank, gets more hard-core country as it goes along. The songs Monroe might hope to get played on country radio are frontloaded here and through no irony at all given the country music industry today, they're the more pop music tunes. But delving deeper into the album yields a different kind of pleasure, such as the song "Dixie," an old-fashioned story song about wanting to escape from the small-mindedness of small town life. It's that rare country song that positions fleeing to the big city as an escape to freedom.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIXIE")
MONROE: (Singing) If I ever get out of Dixie, I'm going to buy me some brand-new shoes. I'm going to have somebody shine them up soon as I pay my dues. If I ever get out of Tennessee, out from 'neath this dust and dirt, I'm going to live my life like a high and mighty, going to get what I deserve. And when I cross that line, man, I'll sing a brand-new song instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistling Dixie all day long. I'm so tired of paying, praying for my sins. Lord, get me out of Dixieland in Jesus' name, amen.
TUCKER: Sometimes I hear a little bit of Dolly Parton in Monroe's performances. There's a firm delicacy to her phrasing, a backbone of strength that's sometimes bent from sorrow. I noticed a striking quote from a recent interview Monroe gave. People always ask, she said, are you sad all the time? Imagine being thought of as eternally unhappy. Actually, I would guess that Ashley Monroe might take a secret joy in that since it means she's done her job so convincingly.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Ashley Monroe's new album, "The Blade."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, there's a saying about drunks that men wake up in jail cells, women wake up in strangers' beds. That generalization rang true for Sarah Hepola in her drinking days when she considered alcohol the fuel of all adventure. We'll talk about her new memoir "Blackout," in which she wrestles with how drinking fit in with and distorted her idea of being an empowered woman. I hope you can join us. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Myers, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Therese Madden. This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.